Robotics will forever change the landscape of the U.S. workforce.
That may create new liability concerns and eliminate others.
BY MICHELLE KERR
It’s probably way too soon to start dreaming up insurance products that will respond to the risk that robots are going to rise up and annihilate
humankind. And good luck finding the market
capacity for it anyway.
However, robots and robotics are fast becoming a
fixture of our reality, and the industry is poised for
Robots, in some form or another, have been
present in the manufacturing sector since 1962,
when a New Jersey General Motors factory began
using a robot to do spot welding and extract die
castings. By the ’70s, increasingly sophisticated
machines, operated by minicomputers, were being
widely used for small parts assembly.
Robotics have long since moved away from the
assembly line. Robots are present everywhere from
warehouses to hospitals, from farms to laboratories,
and from the military to mines and more.
One of the latest robotic forays into the
workplace is at the Aloft hotel in Cupertino, Calif.,
where “The Botlr” — a service robot that looks like
a distant cousin of R2-D2 — is being used to make
small deliveries to guests’ rooms. Robots may soon
be flipping your burgers or picking the grapes that
make your favorite wine.
But the application of robotics is going ever
The development of robots connected to
the Internet, big data, the cloud and advanced
computing technology such as artificial intelligence
(AI) algorithms are bringing a new class of robots
into the workplace — those that can sense, think
and act based on specific data and sensory input,
In June, the Associated Press began
experimenting with having machines write short
business stories. The news organization said that
eventually, the majority of its U.S. corporate
earnings stories would be produced using
automation. (As of press time, Risk & Insurance® is
not yet employing robotic journalists.)
There are obvious positives to the growth
of robotics in the workplace. It makes sense to
give robots the high-turnover jobs that are mind-numbingly rote, as well as those jobs and tasks
considered extremely dangerous.
But the change that is coming may be far
more profound. Garry Mathiason, co-chair of the
Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Automation
practice group at Littler Mendelson in San
Francisco, cited a 2013 study published by the
Oxford Martin School, examining automation
potential across the U.S. labor market.
According to the study, said Mathiason, “ 47
percent of jobs currently done by people in the
(For the record, the Oxford Martin study
said that insurance underwriters are in the
highest risk category for being taken over by
automation, just ahead of claims and policy
processing personnel, claims adjusters,
examiners and investigators.)
“2010 was a turning point in terms of
the acceleration of the technology and its
implications,” said Mathiason. “There is
a change taking place that will be the equivalent
of the Internet in terms of what it will do to the
So far though, companies that employ robots
see the importance of having human checks and
balances on the robots’ work. Many companies are
actually increasing staffing levels to support their
● COVER STORY
That raises concerns about whether employees
are at increased risk of harm by robotic equipment,
or may inadvertently interfere with safe robotic
operations. A fair number of workplace fatalities
related to robotics have occurred in the last decade
As it stands, employers are covered by existing
workers’ comp statutes if a robot were to cause a
workplace injury or fatality, the same as they would
be in the event of an injury or death caused by any
other piece of equipment.
The same would not be true, however, if a robot
were to injure a customer, a vendor or any other
visitor to a facility. In those cases, who can expect to
face a lawsuit? The answer, for now, is: It depends.
Liability issues get sketchy when you factor in
the element of closed versus open robotics.
In a closed robotics system, a robot is designed
and manufactured for one specific purpose.
“There is a change taking place that will
be the equivalent of the Internet in terms
of what it will do to the workplace.”
— GARRY MATHIASON, CO-CHAIR, ROBOTICS, ARTIFICIAL
INTELLIGENCE AND AUTOMATION PRACTICE GROUP,